CRF Blog

The Conservative Case for Unions

by Bill Hayes

In The Conservative Case for Unions for the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that “a new kind of labor organization could address the grievances underlying populist anger.”

All workers do not suffer equally from the decline of unions: In today’s fragmented, hypercompetitive, and globalized workplace, highpowered professionals enjoy more autonomy and respect than ever. Less educated workers, by contrast, have lost agency and, in many cases, dignity. Edward Luce of the Financial Times puts the problem well in his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism: “In survey after survey, the biggest employee complaint is being treated with a lack of respect. Whether they work in an Amazon warehouse, serve fast food, or sit in a … customerservice cubicle, they feel diminished by how they are treated.” That has implications not just for the wellbeing of workers, but for the health of capitalism and even of democracy.

In America, the modern conservative movement was founded on anticommunism and antiunionism. Senator Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative”) built his career bashing unions. President Ronald Reagan, although a former union leader himself, made his bones by breaking the airtraffic controllers’ union. Just this past February, Republicans succeeded in their long push for a righttowork law in Missouri. But the conservative war on unions is beginning to look like a Faustian bargain. If 2016 taught us anything, it was that miserable workers are angry voters, and angry voters are more than capable of lashing out against trade, immigration, free markets, and for that matter liberal democracy itself.

This is not to say the old style of American industrial unions will come back, or should. [more]